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Family Health

How to Treat a Sunburn

BY CARRIE MACMILLAN September 7, 2023

A Yale Medicine dermatologist shares tips on how to heal sunburned skin.

Even if you slather sunscreen lotion all over your body, you still might miss a spot and suffer a painful sunburn. Or if you don’t use enough sunscreen—or any at all—you may be in for even more misery.

So, what’s the best remedy? Aloe vera? A cold compress? Is it okay to peel off your skin, or is that harmful?

Below, we talked to Amanda Zubek, MD, PhD, a Yale Medicine dermatologist, about these questions and more.

What causes a sunburn?

The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage the skin’s outermost layers (called the epidermis) and cause an inflammatory reaction. This is what makes your skin red and hot to the touch.

Melanin is a natural skin pigment that gives your skin color. It absorbs some UV radiation from the sun and can protect it from a certain amount of damage. Genetics determines how much melanin you make, and those with less of it, including fair-skinned people, tend to burn more easily, while those with more melanin might tan more. But a sunburn can happen to any type of skin, especially after prolonged, unprotected sun exposure.

It’s important to know that a tan still signifies cellular damage to the skin.

What are the different types of sunburns?

A first-degree sunburn may make your skin color turn anywhere from light pink to bright red, and it will be painful to the touch. With this type of burn, the upper layers of the skin are affected, and the burn should heal within a few days.

A second-degree sunburn, which is more serious, causes the skin to become severely red, swollen, and blistered because the dermis, a deeper skin layer, and nerve endings have been damaged. This type of sunburn is more painful and could take about two weeks to heal.

With second-degree burns, blisters may form due to the damage the sunburn inflicts on the connections between the epidermis and dermis. Do not pop the blisters—this could impede healing and lead to infection if the dermis is exposed, allowing bacteria to enter. Signs of infection include oozing pus or red streaks on the skin radiating from the blisters.

Why does your skin peel after a sunburn?

Whether it’s a first- or second-degree sunburn, your skin may start to peel a few days after the initial burn. This means your body is trying to get rid of damaged cells. "It’s important to let the skin fall off naturally. For the same reason you don’t want to pop a blister, you also don’t want to peel it yourself because you could introduce bacteria and risk infection,” says Dr. Zubek. “Plus, peeling the dead layers of skin can sometimes lead to a deeper skin injury, which might cause more pain or scarring.”

However, you can moisturize peeling skin (more below), which will help the burn heal faster.

How do you treat a sunburn?

Doctors recommend treating a sunburn as soon as you notice it.

First, get out of the sun and, if possible, go inside. To relieve pain, try a cool shower or bath, but not for too long, as it can dry out the skin. Avoid harsh soaps and don’t exfoliate your skin, either, as both could further irritate the skin.

After bathing, gently pat yourself dry but leave your skin slightly damp to help trap the moisture as you apply a moisturizer. It’s best to avoid petroleum-based moisturizers because they can trap heat and worsen the sunburn. Instead, use a light moisturizer (a lotion or gel) that contains aloe vera or soy. “Aloe and soy have antioxidant properties, which can speed up the healing process,” Dr. Zubek says.

Additionally, you can apply a cool compress to your skin and take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, to ease discomfort. Drinking extra water is also a good idea because a sunburn draws fluid away from the rest of your body, and you want to avoid dehydration.

Other options that may offer relief include applying a 1% hydrocortisone cream and wearing loose-fitting, comfortable clothing that doesn’t rub against irritated skin. You should stay out of the sun entirely until the burn heals because sunburned skin is more susceptible to further damage.

What about a sunburn in kids?

Young skin is more vulnerable to sunburn. For this reason, babies under 6 months of age should not be exposed to direct sunlight; the best protection for these infants is to stay in the shade, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Those older than 6 months should wear a hat, sunglasses that block UV light, and sun-protective clothing, which has UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) in the fabric that blocks UV rays.

For children younger than 1 with a sunburn, call your doctor right away. For children over 1, call your doctor if they have a fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit, are in severe pain, blistering, and/or lethargic. Because sunburn can cause dehydration, give children water or juice; alert your doctor if the child is not urinating.

"Apply moisturizing cream, but don’t rub it in too vigorously, as this could further damage the skin," says Dr. Zubek. "Plain calamine lotion may help, but don’t use one with an added antihistamine. And do not apply alcohol, hydrocortisone, or benzocaine unless directed by your doctor."

When should you seek medical attention for a sunburn?

If you’re an adult, seek medical attention if you have severe blistering over a substantial portion of your body, have a fever and chills, or if you feel faint or confused. “These symptoms can be a sign of severe dehydration, overheating, heatstroke, and/or sunstroke,” Dr. Zubek says.

How do sunburns lead to cancer?

Skin will heal from a sunburn, but too much sun exposure can create long-term damage to the skin, including accelerating skin aging and potentially causing skin cancer. Even without a burn, sun exposure can cause cellular damage that can become cancerous.

Plus, sunburns add up. The more you burn, the greater your risk of skin cancer. Five or more blistering sunburns between ages 5 and 20 increase one's melanoma risk by 80% and nonmelanoma skin cancer risk by 68%.

What should you do to prevent a sunburn?

Medical experts advise preventing sunburns with these key steps: apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 in the summer (and reapply every two hours or more often if swimming or toweling off) and wear sun protective clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat.

Also, clothing in dark or bright colors (red, black, navy blue) will absorb more UV rays than lighter colors (whites or pastels), offering greater sun protection.